Proposed Lab Ignites Fears | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: April 3, 2012

Proposed Lab Ignites Fears

National Lab: Groups raise concerns about Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s plan to combine research labs
Department: Government & Policy, Science & Technology
News Channels: Biological SCENE, Environmental SCENE
Keywords: genomics, synthetic biology, LBNL

An approved plan to combine several satellite genomics and synthetic biology labs of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, Calif., into one location is igniting the fears of some groups and local residents about the possible dangers of “extreme genetic engineering.”

The parties concerned about the combined lab complex gathered last week at a pair of open meetings in Berkeley and said they want to make sure such research on LBNL’s San Francisco Bay campus doesn’t harm the environment, threaten worker or public safety, or release unstoppable harmful organisms.

The unrest stems from a January announcement from LBNL that the Richmond Field station, a section of University of California-owned property by the bay, would be the site of its new campus (C&EN, Jan. 30, page 34). The facility will bring together several LBNL labs from around the Bay Area, including the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Oakland. The individual labs will retain their specific missions.

During the two meetings—one on March 28 and the other on the following day—speakers from environmental watchdog groups voiced apprehension about public safety and worker health in relation to genomics research at the planned complex. No representatives from LBNL involved with the new lab complex spoke at the meetings.

“There is no comprehensive regulational approach for the oversight and governance of synthetic biology,” pointed out Jeremy Gruber, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics. “Will LBNL be transparent?”

Other speakers included UC Berkeley microbial ecology professor Ignacio Chapela, who has been openly critical of research-funding deals between UC Berkeley and other universities with companies such as Novartis and BP; and Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and chair of Friends of the Earth International, who discussed global implications of using genetically modified organisms.

Activist Becky McClain, director of the Injured Workers National Network, warned that large companies have a history of covering up and denying injuries suffered by workers. “Take action,” she said. “It’s your only option for protection.”

The new location, to be known as the “bay campus” of LBNL, will occupy some 152 acres and is scheduled to open in 2016. As many as 800 employees are expected to work there.

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Karl Haro von Mogel (April 3, 2012 3:14 PM)
I have heard that no one from the plant biology community in Berkeley and beyond was invited to the anti-LBNL shindig that happened recently. Some of their concerns could have been addressed by actually initiating a dialog with the people involved, rather than going through the media like this. Maybe they should have been more transparent?
jbob (April 4, 2012 9:51 AM)
No one was "invited", it was an open public meeting that was pretty well publicized. Perhaps folks from the plant biology community could have initiated a dialogue themselves by showing up instead of complaining? Of course they still can, unless you prefer to point fingers without talking substance.
Angelo (April 4, 2012 3:49 AM)
I attended this "public forum." There was no dialogue. The speakers and panelists all took their turn on the soapbox, giving the attendees the idea that all work at the new lab will be focused on developing new pathogens, etc., etc., and that biotechnology has not benefitted our civilization in the slightest bit. I was very disappointed that a real opportunity for actual discussion was completely missed.
ST (April 4, 2012 3:20 PM)
"I attended this "public forum." There was no dialogue"
Not true.. there were questions gathered from the audience throughout the "public forum" and several were answered by the panelists as time allowed.

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